Written by the late and wonderful Mustapha Matura (1939-2019), it’s an entertaining play, rich in possible meanings…
THIS is a marvellous production, superbly acted and has much to say to us now – even though its origins lie in the 1980s.
‘Meetings’ is about a couple – or starts with a couple.
Written by the late Mustapha Matura, a black Briton, born in Trinidad, Matura’s writing is exceptional and carries with it wit, insight and force.
Hugh (Kevin H Goulding) and Jean (Martina Laird) are well-settled, well-off and living very comfortably in Trinidad, thank you.
The action takes place exclusively in their kitchen – and there is actual cooking in this play.
In fact, food plays a big part in ‘Meetings’ – we all know how much of our ethnicity (as a minority) is traded with food – it helps to break down barriers and create a space for understanding and learning.
While it is a powerful signifier in some plays written by ethnic minorities in the UK, it has a slightly different role here – but still asks interesting questions around food, status, desire and fulfilment…
Like any good playwright, Matura opens you up to questions you may not have asked. These folks don’t look like they have ‘problems’. The couple’s banter is good-natured and very funny and there is love, though it may be frayed a little at the edges.
Despite their considerable status, they feel something is missing from their lives – or at least Hugh does… outwardly.
He harks back to the good ol’ days of family and home and the dishes that he enjoyed.
It is partly nostalgic but also carries traces of something more profound and unsettling – it is the strength of Matura’s writing that this is inferred and gentle but does gather pace as we move towards the conclusion.
It is this desire for homespun dishes that leads Hugh to employ Elsa (Bethan Mary-James) as a live-in cook.
Young, keen and from a way over out – over the hills, one might say, she bounces into the kitchen and no dish, for sir or madam, is too much trouble.
Jean, the other woman of the household, is less fussed by eating out and welcomes Elsa into their home.
She has far more important things to be doing – like running a business, than worrying about what she might have to eat that evening.
Hugh is also in business – but seems less caught up with his life in that slipstream and it’s what leads him to Elsa, among other things.
There are undercurrents – Matura doesn’t deny his characters that, but Hugh is on a level and not looking for that sort of diversion and Jean does not feel threatened and even offers Elsa advice on dealing with men. The younger woman confesses to having a love interest back at home but this is not where the tension is in this play.
It’s hard to see where it is all going – there is friction between Hugh and Jean and perhaps hiring Elsa was a way for Hugh to manage his expectations and look for fulfilment through eating. He does seem slightly lost; while Jean is too caught up in herself, possibly.
She is constantly smoking and the pervasiveness of the habit at that time has wider implications – especially for Elsa’s working-class family.
Filled with the rhythms and cadences of English Trinny, the play is a joy to hear and the characterisation is rich, the set design, evocative and inclusive, and it’s a treat to be in the company of such good actors.
Director Kalungi Ssbandeke’s own talent seems to be realised in this production. An actor and writer, who has both worked at the Orange Tree Theatre (‘Blood Knot’) and had work on there (‘Prodigal’) previously, he is the current recipient of the JMK Award* for young directors of exceptional promise.
By the end of ‘Meetings’, all three characters are pulling in different directions – Matura provides no road map but there are signposts.
Some might find ‘Meetings’ a bit shorn of the kind of kitchen-sink drama British plays specialised in for a time but it reminds us – powerfully – that the drama of life isn’t always clearly on show.
ACV rating: **** (out of five)
All pictures: Courtesy of Orange Tree Theatre and by Marc Brenner
Info/Booking: ‘Meetings’ Mustapha Matura on until November 11 at The Orange Tree Theatre, matinees (2.30pm Saturday/Thursday) 7.30pm – 1 Clarence Street, Richmond, Surrey TW9 2 SA.
*For more on the JMK award – http://www.jmktrust.org
There is also the Mustapha Matura Award and Mentoring Programme which is for emerging young black playwrights aged 25 or under and includes a grant of £3,000 and is administered through the Alfred Fagon Award.